How to Choose a Possessive Noun Phrase Construction in Four Easy Steps
Why does an English speaker use an inflected possessive like 'The president's daughter" rather than a prepositional possessive like "The daughter of the president?" This question has intrigued linguists for decades. Traditional grammarians (see Curme 1947) defined and classified the relationships coded by each of the possessive forms. Transformational grammarians (see Jacobson 1968) wrote rules to transform deep structure of constructions into surface structure inflected noun phrases. Most recently, researchers (Quirk 1972, Hawkins 1981) have proposed that the use of the inflected construction is related to the position of the modifier NP on an animacy hierarchy. What all these attempts at explaining the inflected/ prepositional variation in English possessives have in common is their use of intuited data: that is, subjective judgements about whether a particular noun phrase taken out of context is grammatical, ungrammatical or "questionable". This paper attempts to answer the question initially posed in this paragraph through an appeal to actual spoken and written English by means of a database of possessive noun phrases. It concludes that four basic criteria are involved in the choice of one possessive construction over another. One of these is animacy, but a more important factor, not heretofore considered for modern English, is the information status of the two constituent NPs.
Published online: 01 January 1997
Cited by 7 other publications
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